Science / Tech, Social Science

Why Today’s Teens Aren’t In Any Hurry to Grow Up

Teens aren’t what they used to be.

The teen pregnancy rate has reached an all-time low. Fewer teens are drinking alcohol, having sex or working part-time jobs. And as I found in a newly released analysis of seven large surveys, teens are also now less likely to drive, date or go out without their parents than their counterparts 10 or 20 years ago.

Some have tried to explain certain aspects of these trends. Today’s teens are more virtuous and responsible, sociologist David Finkelhor has argued. No, says journalist Jess Williams, they’re just more boring. Others have suggested that teens aren’t working because they are simply lazy.

However, none of these researchers and writers has been able to tie everything together. Not drinking or having sex might be considered “virtuous,” but not driving or working is unrelated to virtue – and might actually be seen as less responsible. A lower teen pregnancy rate isn’t “boring” or “lazy”; it’s fantastic.

These trends continued even as the economy improved after 2011, suggesting the Great Recession isn’t the primary cause. Nor is more schoolwork: The average teen today spends less time on homework than his counterparts did in the 1990s, with time spent on extracurricular activities staying about the same.

To figure out what’s really going on, it’s worth taking a broader look at today’s teens – a generation of kids I call “iGen” – and the environment they’re living in.

A different culture, a slower path

Working, driving, drinking alcohol, having sex and dating have one thing in common: They are all activities adults do. This generation of teens, then, is delaying the responsibilities and pleasures of adulthood.

Adolescence – once the beginning of adulthood – now seems to be an extension of childhood. It’s not that teens are more virtuous or lazier. They could simply be taking longer to grow up.

Looking at these trends through the lens of “life history theory” might be useful. According to this model, whether development is “slow” (with teens taking longer to get to adulthood) or “fast” (getting to adulthood sooner) depends on cultural context.

A “slow life strategy” is more common in times and places where families have fewer children and spend more time cultivating each child’s growth and development. This is a good description of our current culture in the U.S., when the average family has two children, kids can start playing organized sports as preschoolers and preparing for college can begin as early as elementary school. This isn’t a class phenomenon; I found in my analysis that the trend of growing up more slowly doesn’t discriminate between teens from less advantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier families.

A “fast-life strategy,” on the other hand, was the more common parenting approach in the mid-20th century, when fewer labor-saving devices were available and the average woman had four children. As a result, kids needed to fend for themselves sooner. When my uncle told me he went skinny-dipping with his friends when he was eight, I wondered why his parents gave him permission.

Then I remembered: His parents had six other children (with one more to come), ran a farm and it was 1947. The parents needed to focus on day-to-day survival, not making sure their kids had violin lessons by age five.

Is growing up slowly good or bad?

Life history theory explicitly notes that slow and fast life strategies are adaptations to a particular environment, so each isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” Likewise, viewing the trends in teen behavior as “good” or “bad” (or as teens being more “mature” or “immature,” or more “responsible” or “lazy”) misses the big picture: slower development toward adulthood. And it’s not just teens – children are less likely to walk to and from school and are more closely supervised, while young adults are taking longer to settle into careers, marry and have children.

Adulting” – which refers to young adults performing adult responsibilities as if this were remarkable – has now entered the lexicon. The entire developmental path from infancy to full adulthood has slowed.

But like any adaptation, the slow life strategy has trade-offs. It’s definitely a good thing that fewer teens are having sex and drinking alcohol. But what about when they go to college and suddenly enter an environment where sex and alcohol are rampant? For example, although fewer 18-year-olds now binge-drink, 21- to 22-year-olds still binge-drink at roughly the same rate as they have since the 1980s. One study found that teens who rapidly increased their binge-drinking were more at risk of alcohol dependence and adjustment issues than those who learned to drink over a longer period of time. Delaying exposure to alcohol, then, could make young adults less prepared to deal with drinking in college.

The same might be true of teens who don’t work, drive or go out much in high school. Yes, they’re probably less likely to get into an accident, but they may also arrive at college or the workplace less prepared to make decisions on their own.

College administrators describe students who can’t do anything without calling their parents. Employers worry that more young employees lack the ability to work independently. Although I found in my analyses that iGen evinces a stronger work ethic than millennials, they’ll probably also require more guidance as they transition into adulthood.

Even with the downsides in mind, it’s likely beneficial that teens are spending more time developing socially and emotionally before they date, have sex, drink alcohol and work for pay. The key is to make sure that teens eventually get the opportunity to develop the skills they will need as adults: independence, along with social and decision-making skills.

The ConversationFor parents, this might mean making a concerted effort to push your teenagers out of the house more. Otherwise, they might just want to live with you forever.

Jean Twenge is a Professor of Psychology at the San Diego State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation

9 Comments

  1. b19690103 says

    My impression is that they are more reliant on authority figures and less independent, broadly speaking.

  2. John Aylwin says

    Perhaps this is an manifestation of parent-offspring conflict. It’s normally in a child’s interest (genetically speaking) to extract resources from the parents. Extending their childhood would be one dimension of this. Maybe our culture abets it (and maybe for good reason e.g. given the increasing importance of education).

  3. Isn’t it simply that all those so-called ‘adult’ activities are actually activities for which you need to (want to) socialize physically instead of digitally? If their social desires are fulfilled without needing to ‘go out’, isn’t this what you expect to see?

  4. sestamibi says

    “Employers worry that more young employees lack the ability to work independently.”

    Are you kidding? For YEARS all my employers have discouraged independent thinking, preferring to focus on “teamwork” and “multi-tasking”. NOW they’re complaining??!

  5. My experience of this generation lines up with all of this data, but not at all with your interpretation, though I would have thought the same if I hadn’t met any of them. I’ve found them to be level-headed, goal-oriented, and adaptable. They seem surprisingly close to their parents but easily adjust to being on their own and quickly assume independence. My sample is probably biased, and I wouldn’t pretend that this was data if I hadn’t seen these traits with remarkable consistency.

    Basically, they seem like the children that any parent would dream of. My only complaint is that they are actually a bit boring. Not at all disinterested, but maybe uninspired. And averse to breaking rules.

  6. What if having sex later, not drinking and not smoking is actually a normal teen activity and they used to do it sooner just because of peer pressure or poverty? When it comes to pregnancy, maybe they just know how to avoid it. Pseudomature behaviour, like drinking, smoking and having sex, is definitely not about growing up, it is imitating the adults the most immature way possible.

    What if having sex later, not drinking and not smoking is actually a normal teen activity and they used to do it sooner just because of peer pressure or poverty? When it comes to pregnancy, maybe they just know how to avoid it. Pseudomature behaviour, like drinking, smoking and having sex, is definitely not about growing up, it is imitating the adults the most immature way possible.

    Also, if you compare US to other countries, like in Europe, you see that teens drink and smoke less in Europe, also have sex later. I think the reason why young girls got pregnant in US was abstinence only policy and the reason they had sex very early was teen social hierarchy and groupthink you can see in Hollywood teen comedies. Of course, there is social pressure in Europe too but it is not that widespread and only exists among premature teens. For instance, if you look at American teen sites and memes, you can see that the common belief is that if you are 15, it is the last time to lose your virginity and when you are 17 and still a virgin, it is kind of weird. It doesn’t exist in Europe as a general rule, only among the popular crowd. The average age in my country in 17 for instance and almost nobody is religious, saving themselves for the marriage or something. So I doubt having sex early on is something biological, I believe it has much more to do with peer pressure and need to be popular. Now when teens are less influenced by their schoolmates and more by their individual friends of every age, they have sex later. The same with drinking and smoking.

    Having part time jobs – maybe it has legal reasons or people don’t want to hire teenagers without a contract when they can find actual adults who do the job for the same amount of money. Besides, many active teenagers work online or are entrepreneurs, instead of having a job.

    Not driving – maybe the transportation system is better, there are more bike roads. Young people don’t have money for the car as it is not an investment but an expense and don’t really offer anything when you live in the city. Cars are also less of the status symbol as many prefer biking.

    • Carl Grover says

      Your response to this is interesting, Triinu. Your approach seems to assign outcomes based on conjecture, that you can’t know without studies. Perhaps I’m wrong, but comparing the morals of European teenage girls loss of virginity to US TV shows seems a bit narrow, particularly when Europe is a continent, and has representatively more diverse, unacclimated cultures.

  7. Carl Grover says

    Not sure on all the topics, but I imagine starting work later can be equated to minimum wage increase.l, at least to some extent.

  8. Carl Sageman says

    I’m watching a community of young children grow up around me. I frequently engage them. They generally lack life experiences (riding bikes, bush walks, etc) and while they have access to many more views via the Internet, they tend not to be exposed to them because of distractions like YouTube and Facebook. They are indoctrinated with what to think (save the environment) but not how to think.
    Children are kept on a tight leash. Their ability to explore, challenge boundaries and to develop their own independent identity isn’t there.
    What we are seeing isn’t an advancement, it’s technology distractions, helicopter parenting and a broken education system. This education system hits its peak at university. Look at the violence on campus when people come to talk, micro aggressions and safe spaces. It’s disastrous.
    The silver lining, as pointed out by the article, is that delayed responsibility may lead to better decision making. We’ll see.

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